It's all subjective, of course, but the argument that the Indianapolis Colts might be the most dangerous AFC team in the NFL playoffs is a good one.
In Denver, Peyton Manning's postseason record adds a hint of pressure on top of everything. In New England, Tom Brady doesn't have the weapons he would like. In Cincinnati, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis needs to show he's more than a regular-season coach.
The Colts have the tiniest bit of pressure, hosting a home game. That's minor compared to the factors that bolster their argument for being the most dangerous team as they prepare for their 4:35 p.m. EST on Saturday kickoff vs. the Kansas City Chiefs in Lucas Oil Stadium.
What makes a dangerous playoff team and why do the Colts qualify?
-- They're on a roll.
Super Bowl champions of recent vintage, such as the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants, looked like anything but champions late in the season before getting hot. Likewise, the Colts experienced a funk in November, losing in blowout fashion to the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals and surviving less-than-formidable opponents Houston and Tennessee.
Yet over the last three weeks, the Colts have performed well on offense, defense and special teams in winning three straight. The confidence of the early season, when they beat the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos, has returned. During that stretch, Jerrell Freeman, Adam Vinatieri and Robert Mathis earned player of the week honors.
-- Their quarterback's surging.
Andrew Luck's last three games have been as productive and error-free as he has been in his two-year NFL career.
There was a stretch where Luck looked lost. It came after the huge win over the Broncos which included the huge loss of wide receiver Reggie Wayne. The offense floundered. Luck tried to do too much, forcing things. His receivers, and I'm using that term lightly, dropped pass after pass. It wasn't pretty.
Then something clicked. Luck's old friend Griff Whalen came back. Da'Rick Rogers became a possible option. T.Y. Hilton started doing what Hilton does best. In the Colts' win over Jacksonville last week, Luck completed passes to 11 receivers. He's in a groove.
"Once Reggie went down, we had to recalibrate," offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said. "(We had to) find a way to mix and match guys with certain concepts and certain situations, try and put guys in a position to do the things that they do best. We feel like we picked the right time to kind of identify the niche of the different guys."
-- Mathis men are marching.
Yes, the offense struggled during the Colts' mini-slump, but the defense was horrid. They gave up 38, 40 and 42 points in losses during a 2-3 five-game stretch. That's when Mathis called a players-only meeting where toes were stepped on in the name of regaining an edge.
That edge reappeared in wins over the Texans, Chiefs and Jaguars. The Colts have allowed only 20 points over the last three games, and the sole touchdown by the Jaguars came during garbage time.
Not only is the defense showing more steel than any point in the season, it's as healthy as it has been. Cornerbacks Greg Toler and Vontae Davis, both hampered by groin injuries, have practiced and appeared near-normal this week. Defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois is expected back. Mathis and Freeman, meanwhile, have been playing the best football of their careers.
-- They've got something to prove.
Many dismissed the Colts' 2012 season as largely the result of an emotional lift in trying to win for then-ailing coach Chuck Pagano. This season, despite wins over the perceived elite teams in the league (Seattle, San Francisco, Denver), the Colts managed to put only one player (Mathis) on the Pro Bowl roster.
There's a sense that the rest of the world is slighting or at least overlooking the Colts. They're not a bunch that dwells on the disrespect angle, but there's an extra unspoken motivation to show the people are overlooking their talent and season accomplishments.
-- They're a loose, free-wheeling team.
Many teams and players tighten up in the postseason, feeling the weight of legacies or reputations and the need to disprove or match those perceived standards. The Colts are two seasons removed from 2-14. They were rebuilt nearly from scratch. They're still in the midst of establishing their own identity as a team and franchise.
I mentioned this in a column earlier this week, but when players like Trent Richardson and Darrius Heyward-Bey are buying into reduced or altered roles with enthusiasm, you've built a strong team environment. Credit Pagano and the team's leaders for creating such an atmosphere. It's the type of atmosphere they can draw on when adversity hits during the course of a game.
Most people would expect the Colts to win their home game and then bow out at Denver or New England. Some even speculate the Chiefs will come into Indianapolis and steal a win.
The 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos found out earlier this season that the Colts shouldn't be underestimated. The Colts have regained that mojo. They're dangerous again.
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